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Scientists pause study of deadly bird flu strains

After developing an air-transmissible version of the virus, researchers bow to public pressure over fears that releasing the study's findings could be used in a bioterrorism attack.

Scientists pause bird flu studyEnlarge
Workers place dead chickens into plastic bags after they were killed at a live chicken distribution centre in Hong Kong on December 21, 2011. Hong Kong culled 17,000 chickens and suspended live poulty imports for 21 days after three birds tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu virus. (Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Scientists researching mutated and more virulent strains of the deadly avian flu virus H5N1 are acquiescing to government requests to delay the release of the study for 60 days pending review of biosecurity risks, Reuters reported

The researchers said they are responding to public fear the mutated virus "may escape from the laboratories" and be used in an attack. The advance made in labs in both Holland and Wisconsin is a small tweak that made the virus transmissible by air between ferrets, which are considered to be an accurate predictor of its spread in humans. Reuters reported that there are fears that release of such a virus "could spark a pandemic worse than the 1918-19 outbreak of Spanish flu that killed between 20 million and 40 million people."

Scientists say such research is necessary to learn how to defeat the virus if it were to ever mutate in the wild on its own, but others are less convinced. Bioterror expert Thomas Inglesby criticized the research: "It's just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus. And it's a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it," he said, according to NPR.

More from GlobalPost: Dutch scientists create deadly strain of bird flu

In a letter in the journal "Nature," the scientists said there are "positive public health benefits" to their research, but said the "intense public debate" meant it was time to pause further research:

To provide time for these discussions, we have agreed on a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. In addition, no experiments with live H5N1 or H5 HA reassortant viruses already shown to be transmissible in ferrets will be conducted during this time. We will continue to assess the transmissibility of H5N1 influenza viruses that emerge in nature and pose a continuing threat to human health.

More from GlobalPost: Mutant bird flu strain hits China, Vietnam, UN warns.

The journals both plan to publish the research, in a redacted form omitting details that would let other researchers copy the experiments, according to the New York Times:

Ron Fouchier, a virologist who conducted the research in Rotterdam, said he was surprised by how easy it was to change the virus into the very form that the world has been dreading. Now, the world must decide what to do with it. 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/health/120120/scientists-pause-study-virulent-bird-flu-strains